Authors: Arnold Zable
Tags: #HIS000000, #HIS022000
Arnold Zable is a widely published writer, storyteller, and educator. He was born in Wellington, New Zealand, and grew up in the inner-Melbourne suburb of Carlton. He was educated in local state schools, Melbourne University, and Columbia University. Formerly a lecturer in the Arts Faculty at Melbourne University, he has travelled and worked in a variety of jobs in the USA, India, Papua New Guinea, Europe, South-East Asia, and China.
Jewels and Ashes
won five Australian literary awards. His other books include
He is married, and lives in Melbourne with his wife and son.
Jewels and Ashes
Scribe Publications Pty Ltd
18â20 Edward St, Brunswick, Victoria, Australia 3056
Email: [email protected]
First published by Scribe 1991
Copyright Â© Arnold Zable 1991
All rights reserved. Without limiting the rights under copyright reserved above, no part of this publication may be reproduced, stored in or introduced into a retrieval system, or transmitted, in any form or by any means (electronic, mechanical, photocopying, recording or otherwise) without the prior written permission of both the copyright owner and the above publisher of this book.
The photograph used on the front cover was taken by the author in September 1986. It shows remnants of the Jewish cemetery on the outskirts of Bransk, the Polish shtetl where Mr Zable's paternal grandmother was born.
Edited by Henry and Margot Rosenbloom
National Library of Australia
Jewels and ashes.
1. Zable, Arnold.
2. Bialystock (Poland) â Social life and customs.
For my dear mother and father, Hoddes and Meier; and for all those who seek refuge, regardless of race, nation or creed
Except for members of my immediate family, the names and some personal details of the people described in this book who are still living have been changed so as to protect their privacy. All place-names and historical events have been thoroughly researched and, wherever possible, authenticated. But this is not primarily a book of history. Instead, it is concerned with the way in which family stories become, in time, ancestral legends. And as the author, recreating such stories, I am, of course, a part of this process.
I am indebted to many friends who offered advice and encouragement. To Tony Knight, John Larkin, Lily Rigos, Jenny Rigos, Ursula Flicker, Jenny Wajsenberg, Ida Sokolowski and Yehuda Medownik â thank you. To my publishers, Henry and Margot Rosenbloom of Scribe, I owe much for their discerning editing and constant support. And I especially want to thank my wife, Dora, who has continually urged me to go deeper within, to that uncharted territory wherein reside both unresolved fears and the most durable of joys.
Arnold Zable, Melbourne, April 1991
IT BEGAN EARLY IN LIFE, his love of trees. He traces it to Zwierziniec, a forest on the outskirts of Bialystok â a city within the empire of Nicholas 11, Czar of Poland and Autocrat of all the Russias. It was a time of prosperity for the Zabludowski family. In summer they would retreat to the dachas, cottages that were hired for holidays within cool forests, well away from scorched and dry city streets. And in a forest called Zwierziniec my father made his first acquaintance with trees.
There was one in particular, many centuries old, a massive chestnut tree. While describing it father climbs onto a kitchen chair. âIts trunk was solid and thick', he says, and lifts his hands from his stomach in an expansive gesture. He spreads his arms as if about to take flight; its canopy was so broad and high it exploded towards the heavens. Underneath, lovers sat on summer nights while bands played on stands in the clearing that surrounded the tree. Children ran about in circles, their excitement barely under control, and gathered chestnuts that had fallen to the ground. When prised from their husks, the nuts emerged as smooth as lacquered furniture and were used as marbles and currency. Three were worth one sweet, father recalls with accuracy over seventy years later. Boys stuffed their pockets with nuts, and their homes became so littered with them that people tripped over, and exasperated mothers would yell, âGet those accursed chestnuts out of here'.
When father tells a story he enters into it and becomes the object he describes. There is a chestnut tree growing in the kitchen, sprouting from a chair, branches spreading, outstretched limbs reaching towards the ceiling. He is on his toes now, an eighty-year-old man trying to grow taller. âBe careful', I warn him, âor you'll topple over.' I don't fancy the prospect of an uprooted chestnut tree sprawling across the kitchen floor.
âI can see it now, as if it were in front of my eyes', mother tells me. She conjures images of childhood on a distant continent. Father draws maps of a city for me. Streets flow into a central square, and he recalls their names as if he still lived in them. It is almost half a century since he last walked them. âI can see it now, as if it were in front of my eyes', mother says. She describes scenes at random. An epic unfolds in fragments: tales of flight through snow-laden fields at night; a wagon piled high with cucumbers drawn by a pair of horses plodding towards a village market in the pre-dawn darkness; an isolated town caught in the crossfire between rival kingdoms; a ragged band of paupers ransacking an abandoned palace; a boat they called the Wild Mama, rolling and swaying on stormy seas â countless images evoked at the kitchen table of a Melbourne house by two ageing parents for a son about to leave on a journey.
It is not often that I walk with mother nowadays through the streets of the neighbourhood she has lived in for forty years. She remains, most of the time, secluded at home. For hours on end she sits quietly by the kitchen table. The radio drones in the background tuned to talkback shows, classical music, and the proceedings of Parliament. The hours are punctuated by news bulletins. The days revolve around the meals she prepares slowly, as she summons her last reserves of energy, moving from sink to cupboard, fridge to stove, navigating her kingdom of bare necessities. Between chores she sits quietly again. When I come across her at such times I am soothed rather than saddened. The room is permeated with solitude. In mother there is a gentleness, a feeling that life's struggle is almost over, a sense of twilight and long nights that extend towards eternity.
We walk together through the familiar terrain of my childhood on a day of seamless blue skies. The sun hovers on the northern horizon; winter light in Melbourne radiates softly, with a clarity that reveals objects and people in transparent detail. I notice how much mother has aged, how slowly she walks, the streaks of grey that thread through her once pitch-black hair. Frailty is edging in at the limbs. She is, it seems, becoming smaller, succumbing with quiet resignation.
We enter the waiting room of a doctor's surgery. The afternoon sun filters through lace curtains, spreading uneven pools of light onto a coffee table stacked with magazines. Mother's hands tremble as she reaches for something to read. Several years earlier I had noticed this shaking for the first time. She was handing me a cup of tea: the cup rattled, tea spilled into the saucer, and I was shocked into the realisation that mother had crossed that imperceptible border which divides us from the realm of old age and fragility.
While we wait, an elderly woman enters the doctor's rooms. When she glances at mother a strong current of recognition passes between them, something far more powerful than a warm greeting between good friends. They are âship sisters', having met over fifty years ago in the port of Marseilles. Soon after, they had boarded the French boat the
after the first storm they began to call her the Wild Mama, because she bucked and rolled on wild seas.
Their bond is as strong as any ties of blood. They are on the threshold of the ninth decade of their lives, but in this moment of surprise encounter they stand outside time. They are ship sisters who left behind them a way of life, an indelible intimacy, family and friends they were never to see again. As they sailed from Marseilles in January 1933, the passengers heard the news that Hitler had become Chancellor of Germany. âWe knew enough to be disturbed', mother has told me. âBut how could we know what was going to happen and how immense it would be?'
The Wild Mama was steaming away from Europe, wrenched free from a continent that was beginning to seethe and boil. Cauldrons of ancient tribal hatreds were being fanned towards an explosion; and between the Old World and the New, the Wild Mama ploughed through a furious sea.
âDo you ever think about those you left behind?', I ask father. âNot often', he says. âSuch memories are a luxury I can't afford.'
He guards himself, in his day-to-day existence, from sinking into reveries on the past. Many times, during the years since he retired, he has told me that each day of added life is a miracle. There are mornings he awakens as if paralysed; with sheer will he propels himself out of bed, shakes his limbs and, slowly, with increasing vigour and precision, he sets about his daily chores.
âJust put one foot in front of the other', he tells me: out to the bathroom to wash and shave; to the shops to buy food and newspapers; into the kitchen to make breakfast. In old age he has been able to make the kitchen a part of his domain, at least in the mornings, when mother usually sleeps. He chops onions, grates potatoes, shreds cabbage, and fries them with whipped eggs into thick cakes until they are blackened on the outsides. âThat is when you know they are ready on the insides', he claims, in defence of his method. He has developed his formulas and sticks to them. They are his recipes for survival. But he may also throw in a few raisins or almonds â âto keep my imagination alive', he explains.
He has an explanation for everything. He reads newspapers, âto keep myself alert'. He studies chosen articles, underlines sentences in red biro, and scrawls commentaries in the margins like a talmudic scholar interpreting a sacred text. He extracts philosophical comments from even the most mundane of news items, and copies them onto scraps of paper which he gathers eventually into notebooks.
âJust put one foot in front of the other, and don't stop moving until you have extracted your full measure of life from the day', he tells me, and moves into the backyard. He points proudly to this season's tomatoes, radishes, and silver beet, as he waters his patch of soil. It measures two metres by about ten, and is divided into segments marked off by primitive fences made of wire mesh. âI love form', he says. âThis is why I garden: to experiment with form and to create symmetry.' He takes up a shovel and deepens the hole he is preparing for his next batch of compost; and I recall a time when I was coming into my first focussed view of the world, and milk was still delivered by horse-drawn cart. Father would go into the street to collect the fresh manure that had been left behind the previous night, and would spread it over the same backyard plot he is now tending for the fortieth year.
He guards himself from disturbing thoughts and memories, and has done so for many years; as he must, for he is the sole survivor of his once large family. âThere are not enough hours in the day for what I want to do', he has told me many times. âWhy waste them in recalling things that have long since gone?'
Yet there is one way, at least, in which father does maintain links with the past. He is a hoarder, especially of old documents, newspapers, magazines, letters. The newspapers pile up, and he spends many hours sorting and rearranging them. Occasionally he gets rid of some, but only after he has gone through them carefully again to make sure he is not losing something of great importance.
âDo you ever think of those you left behind?', I persist. Father responds by going into his bedroom and emerging with the yellowed pages of a Yiddish newspaper stained with brown pock-marks of decay. The disintegrating pages are held together with strips of transparent tape which track through headlines, news commentaries, features, radio timetables, advertisements, reviews of concerts and lectures, and notices of births, engagements, marriages, and deaths. The date is March 17, 1936. On the masthead is printed the proud claim that
is the oldest and most widely-circulated Bialystok daily. Towards the lower right-hand corner on the front page, within a space four inches by two, framed in black, is printed the announcement: